Deputy Buford threw a haymaker across the drunk’s jaw. The man spun on his heels like he was one of those French dancers—and a trail of spit, whiskey and blood slung out from between his teeth. He dropped cold on the sawdust, the whole bar shook but the pianist never missed a beat.
Two travelers at the bar stared at Buford, tipped their beers. “That the law in this town, deputy?”
Buford let the sting of the punch evaporate from his knuckles, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. Calming technique he learned from a Chinaman who would lay a desert scorpion on Buford’s naked arm to learn the tranquility. He took in both travelers. Scuzzy and dirty from the road, half-liquored up. And at this hour in the morning.
“Yes it is.” Buford said. He bent over and grabbed the drunk, lifted him by his collar. Drug him out, the man’s boot heels carving tracks through the sawdust.
Daniel the barkeep leaned over to the two strangers, said, “Deputy Buford was born and raised in this here his town. Worn a badge eight years. As you can plainly see, he only asks once.”
“Man lets his fist do the talkin’, I reckon.” Said one traveler. His tremendous mustache moved more than his lips did as he spoke.
“That he does.” Daniel said. Turned and looked at Missy, one of the whores. She just stood off to the side, gathering up the strips of her dress that the fighting drunk had torn off when he decided it was time to treat her like an animal. “And he keeps the working girls safe in ways I never could. Hell, he defends any woman like she was his mother.”
The other traveler barked a dry laugh. Wet his throat with the rest of his beer. “Probably got a family full ‘o whores. Only reason a man would slug another man over a woman who’d take anyone to bed for a fistful of dollars.”
“May be,” Daniel said in a tone reserved for warnings. “But either way, I want your business as long as I can get it and Buford’ll kick your wanderin’ ass across this saloon next if he hears that talk. So, my advice is to avoid insultin’ Buford’s mama—God rest her soul—or anyone else, ‘cuz I’m tired of scrubbin’ blood off this here counter.”
Neither stranger said anything. The bottoms of their glasses did all the talking from then on.
“You seen Hornsby ‘round?” Sheriff Cross asked as Buford slammed the jail door on the fighting drunk.
“You know where he went last?”
“Hunting a bounty.”
“Just what I need … one of my deputies goin’ off on his own. Again. How many times this make it, him huntin’ outlaws?”
“Four damn trips without notifyin’ me. Him and me are goin’ have a talk when he comes back.”
Buford raised an eyebrow. “You got me.”
Sheriff Cross smiled. “Yes, that’s true. But I hired Hornsby first, not that it matters I guess.” The Sheriff used his knife to tap a wanted poster. “This fella? He the bounty?”
Buford gave a single glance. Nodded.
“Ugly bastard,” Sheriff Cross said. “They’s all ugly bastards, though.” He studied it closer. “What you think he did to earn this knife scar down his face and neck like this?”
“Crime, I reckon.”
“Smart ass.” The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, mulled it over. “A man should die from that kind of cut. And such an odd name as well.”
“Hey! What’s his name?” Came from the other cell. Sheriff Cross turned and saw Amos, an old timer who spent his days in the bar and his nights wherever he thought he could sleep it off. The Sheriff himself found Amos in a stable the night before, so drunk he pissed himself and so furious about it he was yelling at the horses. Better to sleep it off in a cell than to get trampled under hoof.
“Why you care?”
“Because, Sheriff … what else I got now?” Amos laughed just a little. Shrugged.
Sheriff Cross showed him the poster. “Name is Obsidian.”
Amos went white as ivory. “That’s a load of malarkey. And don’t think yer funny teasin’ me neither.” His lip twitched; a quiver. His eyes crawled along the opposite wall, searching for anything besides what the name Obsidian meant to him.
Buford walked forward. Looked to the poster, then at Amos with eyes that started to burn like he needed to punch another man. “You know him?”
“Now Deputy, I saw a man once that was named some such thing, and he had a scar as I’ve said, but he ain’t comin’ ‘round here. The man I knew was in Virginia. He shot a lot of men the day I knew him. Burnt down the town.”
“But not you? He didn’t shoot you?”
“No. He shot other—I hid.”
“Explain that.” Buford said. Amos caught himself swallowing hard, jiggling his Adam’s apple like a yo-yo. He shuffled his feet and suddenly they became very interesting to old drunk Amos. That deputy was harder to read than an old back trail and harder to break than a mesa, but when he told someone to explain that, then that someone knew they weren’t stepping right with Deputy Buford.
And an ass-kicking was aimed their way if they didn’t get back on them tracks.
“That can’t be the same Obsidian I’m talkin’ ‘bout, Deputy, cuz the one I met was back in 1820. When I was ‘bout knee-high to a June bug.”
Buford leaned over to a copy of the poster hung on a wall and tore it off like he was field dressing a deer. One quick downward yank. He went to Amos, shoved the poster forward a scant inch off of the old man’s face. “Look.”
A thin trickle of sweat beaded down Amos’s cheek. His eyes darted away. Like seeing a ghost.
“Same man?” Buford said. Amos said nothing. “Bullshit.”
Amos’ jaw trembled. “Can’t be. Can’t be.”
“Isn’t.” Buford went to his chair. Lit up a cigar and checked his guns.
The Sheriff leaned up. “Now Amos, we wasn’t teasin’ ya about this here outlaw. I had no idea you know him … but you say he was from your childhood? You can understand why we’re askin’ for an explanation.”
Buford looked up. “Hornsby is out hunting him.”
Amos leaned his head against the bars; fear drew lines through his forehead and under his eyes. His head filled with bewilderment, screams, sizzling blood and fire.
“I was young. Somewhere between grass and hay, I reckon. That Obsidian fella, he strolled into town for God knows what and the locals didn’t care for ‘em. They said so. I reckon he was just passin’ through, but people— they testified that man made them ill just bein’ there. Like he put off somethin’ … somethin’ vile. I dunno. Mammy kept me away from the worst of it.
“The biggest, meanest drunkest man we had came and messed with that Obsidian the very night he strolled into town. Name was James Smith. He was built like a prized ox, stubborn as one too. Wanted to fight the stranger. And the stranger obliged. But Obsidian’s punch, it killed James. I swear on my mammy’s grave. That I did see. James’s head … as funny as it sounds, it spun ‘round on his neck. Almost a full turn. Obsidian, he just kept on strollin’ through.
“Some of James’s partners, well, they staged a shootout. Was gonna surprise Obsidian with lead. Only, ain’t no surprisin’. Cuz Obsidian, even though they was all hidden, he knew where they was. And he killed ‘em.”
Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “The outlaw knew where a surprise posse was hidden? How could it be? He pay off an tattle tell or somethin’?”
“Nah,” Amos looked like he needed a fresh drink. “Said he saw it in a dream.”
“He killed children?” Buford asked. A thick curtain of smoke gushed up from the cigar, mixing with the unnerving glow of gray from his eyes. Sharp black flecks floated in that gray, cutting whoever looked too deeply. “Answer me. He killed children?”
Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t see your hiding place?”
“Don’t know.” Amos rubbed his eyes, scrubbing away the recollection. “Just … don’t know.”
“Where’d you hide?”
Amos rolled his head along the cell bars, as if to massage out some poisoned memory. “Under my mammy’s dead body.”
The Sheriff coughed. “Well—”
“I still smell her perfume, feel her leechin’ heat sometimes. I go on the big drunks to rid myself of that. Hell, I go to the bar—”
The doors slammed opened, and three shadows spilled across the room. Everyone looked up to where Mrs. Maggie Hornsby stood with her two little boys. “Sheriff,” she said, trying to keep her eyes from tearing up. “Have you seen my husband?”
Amos, Red Clay River’s old codger, town drunk and nervous hoot, he looked away. He remembered when his own mammy asked that question. Amos remembered how it turned out.
Stones crunched underfoot as Obsidian climbed up a jagged outcropping.
When Obsidian reached the summit he had a view of the cactus patches and scrub, smattered about like lichen on the sea floor. His horse was content to wait at the bottom, chewing on a handful of oats. The wind played with his duster’s tails, flipped his bangs like a snapping banner. His eyes scanned the flat pan of the desert expanse, seeing lifelessness an feeling at home.
The newborn sun was still fat and pink on the horizon, yellow spilling into its belly just a little more each moment on serpentine fingers. Gold stained its edges, shot orange runners out into the further sky. Feeling its way out. Almost as if the sun were nervous to illuminate a landscape where Obsidian had been for fear of what it would be revealing to the world.
“The blood tasted better at sunrise on the beaches of the Ottoman Empire,” Lydia said. She always sounded so near her tongue could lick his earlobe. Obsidian raised an eyebrow but did not turn. They rarely spoke anymore.
He cleared his throat, churning like ash and rock. “I found it best on Hadrian’s Wall, peering north into Caledonia.”
“I was never satisfied there.”
“Nor anywhere.” Obsidian said, a sneer.
A scorpion skittered out from underneath a rock and ran across his boot. Soon came a second, and a third. He watched them mindless flit around, and turned his eyes skyward to look for a circling vulture.
In Missouri he had seen veritable seas of field mice rushing in like tides, as well as the solitary brown spiders that men had been afraid to touch. The spiders dwelt in the old folds of clothing and forgotten woodpiles, killing men with a single bite when disturbed. In the southeast it had been all manner of insects. The further into slave territory he was, the more of those things had wings and stingers. But the bugs down there …
In England it had been beady-eyed rats. Too many for an army of men with clubs to pound into extinction. And forever across the expanse of Europe it was some other rodent or bird of prey or crawling thing.
Behind him coyotes howled. Maybe a mile away.
“They’ve found him,” she said. “That bounty hunter.”
“He was a deputy. And he’s long dead.” Obsidian said. “I spared him the indignity of being eaten alive.”
“Soft,” she said and clucked. Her voice was like serpents. “I want his family.”
“You always want more.”
“We always want more.”
At the mention of we a single tendril of black smoke curled around the base of the boulder. Thick enough to be a horse. Lydia smiled; coquettishly ingesting its movements with her eyes. She had grown t love it like a loyal pet. And it came when she called.
The Black felt along the earth and stone, undulating as it was, bulging here, recessing there, alive and yet a mist. Malevolence pulsed through it like lightning through storm clouds. It stalked in fog patterns; scheming. It depressed and form a mouth, a thousand mouths, all wanting to be fed.
Obsidian cocked his head just enough to follow the The Black’s tentacle around the outcropping. From every crevice and cranny, anywhere a shadow laid, The Black poured forth. It merged into a great pulsing cloud, low-lying and expansive. As the hills and valleys of its mass churned like roiling fire smoke new folds appeared. It was endless, and yet it could compact its mass into nothing.
“You always want more,” Obsidian said and jumped down to the desert floor. His boots struck and the dry earth shot out a multitude of cracks.
“We always want more,” she said. She giggled, and it was like an echo through Obsidian’s mind. Dried seeds falling along the length of a rain stick, deafening and insane.
He walked around to his horse. Tied off to it was Hornsby’s horse, pus leaking from its weakening eyes. Flies darting about. Its small muscles tremored; ill with Obsidian’s pestilence. Adjusting his pack, he looked at the path he had ridden. Cacti withered and twisted into shriveled mockeries. A dead courser bird was already putrefying, lying near a small stone it had been perched upon as Obsidian rode by. A healthy mesquite tree browned and shed its leaves, forming a dead halo skirting its base. Only its thorns were left.
Widening out into a V, a wake of death. Cutting him off from any new life, leaving him only with Lydia. Why it spared his pack animals he never asked, but the effect—the steady drain of life—always slowed down on his horses. Obsidian considered it the one grace he received along with all his punishments. He should suffer eternally, but at least he wouldn’t have to walk everywhere.
He mounted and from inside his satchel, her voice came again.
“The deputy’s town is due north. We want more. We want his family.”
He scratched at his stubble, lit some tobacco. “Stop with your annoyances.”
But Obsidian spurred his horse into a gallop and her voice was drowned out by the rush of air.
Soon they met a river. Obsidian looked up and down the length of it that he could see, and figured they were at one of its widest points. They were at a deep bend, and the water rushed around it. Foaming, churning over a cluster of rocks collected in the crook of it. Obsidian dismounted and took the animals by their reins. Walked to the edge, which was little more than a slop of clay and dead wash-brush.
He stepped inside, sinking to his ankle. His own horse trotted behind him, lazily chewing on another handful of oats as he led it through the tumolt. Hornsby’s horse advanced with more trepidation. Because Obsidian stepped directly into the whitecaps of the river.
Hornsby’s mount snorted and tried to buck at the shock of it all. Instinct reared its head. But even as the water rushed at them, it separated down a seam. He slogged through the silt, drawing the animals behind him. The river carved up into two walls, and not a single bead of overspray came inside the cone it formed around him. Refused to touch them. Refused to touch Obsidian.
They emerged onto the dry bank and Obsidian allowed the horses a moment to calm down and then they left.
Hornsby’s wife paced back and forth in the office like an animal does when it knows a thunderhead is coming. She was elegant, even under her worry. Her boys sat obediently, both stuffed into the Sheriff’s own chair and were scared for their mother.
Sheriff Cross had left. Business with the mayor. He had full faith Buford could handle this. There’d be no way Hornsby would be foolish enough to get into so much trouble that he’d be in real danger. Probably just went too far without water for his horse or got lost chasing ghosts. Buford would sniff ‘em out, give him a good lashing and tow him home.
Buford watched Maddie pace in silence. He sent smoke rings to the ceiling, saw her run an unsteady hand through the thick hair on both her boys’ heads. Saw her eyeball the wanted poster and give a shudder.
“When’d he leave?” Buford asked, tapping ash from his cigar into an empty boot he’d taken off a dead man. He traded it for three bullets to the man’s chest. The dead man seemed fine with the arrangement.
“Day before yesterday, after supper,” Maddie Hornsby stopped her pacing, shook her head as if to shrug off the foreboding feeling her husband had met his end. She reached out and snatched the cigar from Buford’s hand. Began smoking.
“Want your own?”
“This’ll do just fine, thank you much.”
“After him?” Buford motioned to the poster.
“Yes. He wanted that bounty. Thought it would—thought it would help us.”
“Travelin’ west money.” Buford set his eyes upon her even as she refused to look at him. “He told me so.”
A confession as bold as any he’d ever gotten. “Yes, yes it was. Traveling money. No one wants to live and die in this town.”
“I understand.” Buford didn’t wince at the comment.
“I’m sorry, Buford. I know your own kin settled this here town. Died here.” Maddie ashed into the boot, sniffed away a tear. “I’m sorry if my tone ain’t congenial. I really am.”
“No. I … insulted you. I know you love this town. I just want to hear the ocean, feel the sea breeze. Maybe—”
“Tone’s fine.” Buford checked his guns. Maddie smoked in silence. Finally Buford asked, “What’d he say about the outlaw?”
Maddie thought for a moment. “He said … well, the man was wanted for murder. I forget where. Back east, I think. Expressman rode through, brought these posters. You know, put ‘em up everywhere, this side of the Mississippi is what my husband said. Heard something about the outlaw havin’ warrants all about, in the territories and in the states. Big fish. Maybe one of the biggest.”
“Why’d he go alone?”
Maddie just shrugged. Buford knew. Hornsby was a good man; a good provider. But if he asked Buford or the Sheriff to go with him, or even if he formed a posse, well, Hornsby would be sharing his traveling money. The cash that bought his wife her ticket to the ocean. It might’ve been too lean a catch if he had to share.
“How’d he know where’d look?”
“Rumors, I guess.” Maddie said. “I know he talked to some strangers passin’ by. They stopped him, said they were lookin’ for a lawman. The way my husband said it, these strangers passed Obsidian on the road and recognized him from a poster. Came into town and told my husband. I—I didn’t ask much. I didn’t want to know.”
“No shame in it.” Buford said. He felt Maddie’s sorrow drift over to him. He hated how it tasted.
She looked at him with plain eyes, welling with tears. “I love him dearly, but you know … he ain’t … you when it comes to dealin’ with bad men.”
“Your husband’s a good man.” Buford looked away. He stared down plenty of fools who challenged him with bullets, stared down death itself and never flinched. But this frail woman, a woman he still held a candle for, talking about her husband, he couldn’t face her just then. They both knew it. Something invisible sat in the room with them, a quiescence, a palatable knowing that somehow the man in the wanted poster had plucked the deputy from this earth. Hornsby was dead.
Buford rubbed his face. Breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. Watching Maddie suffer unwound the coils of his soul. “Maybe if I had made one decision different, I woulda been an outlaw. Just one. Maybe. I might not be such a good man but I hold the law. Your husband, it woulda taken a lot more than one different decision for him to be a bad man. He ain’t got evil in him.”
Maddie, removed from her sorrow, said, “It’s rare to hear you say so much.”
“That’s because I don’t say much.”
“I need him back, Buford. I do.”
“I’ll saddle up.” Buford stood, looked at Maddie. Snatches of memory careened back to him, from far away when they were kids.
Buford scratched away those memories like dried mud on his boots. Maybe if he hadn’t had all the grit that he did, maybe if he could smile and charm the way Hornsby did, Maddie would’ve been his. But as it was, while he stared at the woman he never fought for back when they were kids, he knew damn good and well she was fretting over the man she did love. The man who gave her children. Married her, gave a solid roof and food on the table. Listened to her hopes and dreams, fought to make them real.
Buford never married, except to his badge. Only thing I could love, Buford would say. Hell, only thing’d love me back.
In the Sheriff’s office, in the here and now, heat from the day rising up and dust from the road with it, Buford cleared his throat.
“Strangers found him, eh?” he asked, making sure his throat was clear. “Same strangers in the bar?” Buford rolled his head, popped his neck. Flexed his hands. Made sure his belt hung just right. Picked up his hat, turned to the door.
Maddie exhaled long and hollow, smoke drifting like tendrils up into the ceiling. “Don’t know. Maybe. One was short with a dark leather overcoat; the other was your height with a fairly grand mustache.”
“I know ‘em. Where will you be?” Buford asked, back to Maddie but looking over his shoulder just enough to take her in one last time.
“My sister’s. Over yonder.” Maddie jerked her chin northward, at the far end of the main street. The Sheriff’s office was at the very south end. “Just before the eastern road to the rail road platform.”
“I know the one.” Buford opened the door to the outside world. “I’ll find you there.”
“Please Buford, bring him back.”
Buford left, and Maddie took her boys into her arms and cried.